The Funny Pages in Modern Times
A new approach to consuming old media
You may have heard the news this weekend that Dilbert creator and known prick Scott Adams has finally gone too far. After a racist rant where he called Black people a “hate group” that white people should “get the hell away” from, lots of prominent newspapers dropped his once-popular comic strip, leading to his syndicate ultimately cutting ties completely.
“Most of my income will be gone by next week. My reputation for the rest of my life is destroyed. You can’t come back from this, am I right? There’s no way you can come back from this.” - Scott Adams, shortly after telling people “you should absolutely be racist whenever it’s to your advantage.”
That gives me a timely peg for a topic that’s been on my mind lately: the current state of newspaper comic strips and how we consume them.
My in-laws still get the physical newspaper delivered to their house every day. They save the comics sections for my kids, who read them when they go over to their house once a week or so. Watching my kids read the comics in the newspaper makes me recall fondly when I used to do the same thing.
I haven’t read a newspaper comic regularly in decades. When I happen to occasionally pick one up, I check out a few strips I used to enjoy and then I look with curiosity at all the other strips on the page. It’s a strange combination of new comics I’ve never heard of, long-running comics that are not especially funny anymore, and “classic” strips re-printed long after their creators have passed on. But I’m sure there must be some good new comics out there, right? How could I find them? And would I enjoy reading them daily like I used to?
It got me wondering how I could recreate the experience of reading a comics page on the computer. I knew that GoComics is the go-to website for hundreds of syndicated comic strips, but reading comics there is a hunt-and-peck experience that feels onerous. It’s not designed for glanceable digestion the way a newspaper page is. (More on that later).
Then I found ComicsRSS, where someone has created individual RSS feeds for more than 600+ syndicated comics. Since I have a daily habit of catching up on websites via RSS anyway, it was easy to set up RSS subscriptions for my favorite comics and read them as part of my regular news consumption.
This came close to what I wanted. But it still wasn’t easily digestible all one one page like the newspaper. What I really wanted was to take all those ComicsRSS feeds, pull the most recent comic from each one, and display them all on a single page. But I’m not a coder and I have no idea how to do that.
ChatGPT to the rescue
I know, I know. We’re all sick of talking about ChatGPT. But dammit, that thing is useful.
I told ChatGPT what I wanted. I pasted a sample of one ComicsRSS feed so it could see the structure, and gave it the URLs of a few others. I asked it to make a web page that would pull the latest image from each feed and present it all on one page, along with the comic’s title. And in case I didn’t have time to read it every day, I wanted Previous Day and Next Day buttons for navigation. Nothing elaborate. Just good enough for me alone to use.
After a bit of back-and-forth problem solving with ChatGPT, I finally had a page that did exactly what I dreamed of:
I do know enough to do a little styling myself, so I added a light paper texture background, and picked a new font for the title. And it all worked perfectly!
I figured that if I wanted to share this with other people to use, they could easily just save the page and edit the html to add or remove RSS feeds for comics they want to read.
But then I wondered if ChatGPT could help with that, too.
Building the Comic Picker
I decided to enlist ChatGPT’s help in building a page that would list all the comics alphabetically, let you pick which ones you want to follow, and then build you your own custom comics page.
This proved to be a bit harder than just making the comics page itself. Again, I didn’t know how to write the code to do this, but I knew the steps I needed to take. First, I had to get the list of 600+ RSS feeds from ComicsRSS and turn them into a checklist. So I saved the html for the ComicsRSS site and again pasted a sample of the code into ChatGPT so it could see the structure. Then it wrote a Python script for me that ran through the whole page, pulled all the RSS feeds and titles, and turned them into an html checklist.
Next, I wanted them to be alphabetized — but ignoring the first word if it’s an article — and then to make it a little easier to browse such a long list, I wanted them grouped into sections by letter. ChatGPT wrote a script to do all that.
And then to be even more readable, I wanted every other line to have alternating colored backgrounds. ChatGPT gave me a CSS snippet for that.
Finally, I wanted to make a new customized version of the Comics Page that was already built for me earlier, but using the comics that the user selected, and prompt the user to save it locally. ChatGPT wrote the script to do all that.
It required some trial-and-error, and reporting back to ChatGPT what didn’t work or clarifying what it misunderstood so it could try again. But finally — voilà — the Comic Picker was done!
It was perfect! It let me build the comics page of my dreams.
This was a lot of work to go through for the dozen or so comics that I was interested in reading. But the more I worked on it, the more it just became a challenge to see whether or not I even could build something like this with ChatGPT.
Of course, now that I had an easy way to read 600+ comics, how could I figure out which ones were worth reading? I needed a page that have every single comic on it so I could skim and find some good ones. So I added a “toggle all” button so I didn’t have to check them all off manually, and built the Massive Page Of All Comics.
They don’t all publish daily, so most days there are between 300 and 400 comics to read. I have yet to make it through a single day’s worth, but I have discovered some funny comics I didn’t previously know about.
You can try the Comic Picker for yourself and build your own comics page. When you get your customized html page, save the file locally on your hard drive and just open it whenever you want.
What I’ve learned
Okay, the obvious thing is that once again ChatGPT proved to be incredibly useful in helping me build something I wanted without knowing how to code. Conversational coding feels like the future of programming for schlubs like me. But to tell you the truth, it has also gotten me interested in finally learning to code stuff like this from scratch myself, and I’m halfway through Al Sweigart’s Automate The Boring Stuff With Python which is really good so far.
But I’ve also learned some surprising things about the comics!
Like, when I was a kid, I had no interest at all in Sally Forth. Around 25 years ago, a new writer named Francesco Marciuliano took over, and I noticed that it was suddenly actually funny. And now, it completely resonates with me. Ted Forth is a Gen X dad, just like me. Just look at this strip from a recent storyline where he visited the house he grew up in. I feel seen.
(Oh, and also: It took me way too long to realize that Sally Forth is a pun.)
Do you remember Luann? I remember reading Luann as a kid, and the main character was in like eighth grade or something. It was a pretty innocent strip that sometimes earned a chuckle.
Now Luann is the horniest comic in the newspaper. I’m honestly surprised some of this makes it in a traditionally conservative space.
Apparently, I’m the last person to know about this. I shared this observation on Mastodon and people told me it’s been this way for a while.
Wow. Little Luann is all grown up.
Back to GoComics
After all this, I finally took a closer look at the GoComics website and saw that they offer something called GoComics Premium. It’s the officially sanctioned way to “choose your favorite comics and read them all on one page” and it’s available for the very reasonable price of $20 per year, ad-free. That’s the proper way to do this and still support the people who create the comics.
Of course this already existed.
So I signed up for an account and boy was that easier than spending two days going back and forth with ChatGPT to get what I wanted.
But I realized that GoComics actually doesn’t carry all the comics I like to read. ComicsRSS scrapes a wider variety of sources than just GoComics to build its feeds. So I’ll probably keep a hybrid approach: using my page to read some comics and using GoComics Premium to make sure most of those cartoonists are still being supported.
One nice feature I noticed is that GoComics Premium tells you how many comics on your list have been updated each day, since not all of them are.
That’s actually a good idea. Hang on a second, I have to go talk to ChatGPT about something. [A few minutes later…] Okay, my page does that now, too.
The last time I wrote about ChatGPT, I was largely focused on the peculiarities of using a chatbot that could simulate a personality. The more I used it that way, the more ChatGPT’s seams became visible and the novelty wore off. But I have found it continues to be enormously useful for helping me write simple code like this example. The Washington Post just wrote an article about this kind of programming that has this great quote: “The hottest new programming language is English.”
And that’s it for another edition of Ironic Sans! Thanks again for reading. Subscribe, share, comment, do all that good stuff. Your feedback keeps me going writing this thing.
Until next time, I’ll see you in the funny pages.
"Now Luann is the horniest comic in the newspaper." Never once would I have thought I'd ever see a sentence like that in my life...
If you like Marciuliano, you should check out his comic Medium Large and his annual Angry Santa Elf fun:
I also love Red Meat's absurdism, recurrent characters, and _outstanding_ commenters: